Who cares? The here and now needs of children


‘Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.’ Oscar Wilde, whose children didn’t. Some children have a bigger job than others.

Child abuse reporting rates are soaring and nobody cares, it would seem from the muffled response to the latest attempt to make us care. The La Trobe University Childhood Abused Report, commissioned by the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, was released on 10 April and it hardly rated on Google. Its analysis of child abuse notification reports and the latest research on its prevalence and consequences makes rotten reading. Though not all states mandate reporting and they all do it differently, more than 219 000 reports were recorded nationally in 2003 and the rate of reporting is rising every year as is the ‘substantiation’ rate (more than 40 000). It is particularly dispiriting that the report does not have any new proposals for what it concludes is a pandemic of abuse, or its underlying cause: a lack of respect for children.



The Alannah and Madeline Foundation commemorates two little girls who were killed by a gunman in Port Arthur in a massacre that invoked a rare, effective, national reaction. The Commonwealth forced through uniform gun laws designed to prevent these instruments of destruction from fulfilling their purpose, including a buy-back scheme funded by a national levy.

It seems to have occurred to nobody that we could prevent the destruction of the potential of tens of thousands of Australian children whose hopeless or helpless, criminal or ignorant or just desperate parents bash, cripple, ignore, exploit or abandon them, if we had the will.

If we accepted that child abuse was a national disgrace we would readily set aside our parochial concerns and business preoccupations. We could create a comprehensive, national program of child abuse prevention laws, policies and programs and decent services, available for every child. A levy on birth and marriage or even car registrations, perhaps, might fund it, and maybe generous tax rewards for voluntary contributions to a program of innovative child protection research and services, too. Real collaboration among state and territory and local and federal governments and the not-for-profit sector could achieve astonishing results. A national children’s commissioner would give a focus and governmental priority to what would be national war on our ignorance of children’s developmental and other needs and disrespect for their human dignity, and give generous support to all parents on how best to protect children’s rights.

On the day the report was launched, State premiers made passionate speeches about the national interest in the distribution of GST and the rights of the states to raise and decide how to spend their tax revenue. Health spokesmen understood the urgency of ensuring that new pharmaceuticals were safe. The Prime Minister was clear about the necessity for a unified national industrial relations system, and asserted the Commonwealth’s willingness to assume responsibility for public infrastructure and services if the states did not meet proper standards.

If we can act for the good of the national economy, why the hell can’t we do it for the nation’s children?

A relatively few, loved and innocent men and women and children died in Port Arthur. There are tens of thousands of children who are today suffering emotional and physical abuse and neglect, and a tiny proportion, just 10 per cent of the reports, who are sexually abused. Some will die. Every state and territory has its own web of domestic violence, criminal, child protection, education and health laws, regulations and ways of reporting and administrative networks and services, the resultant mess of inconsistent, constantly changing and ineffective systems, constantly ‘under review’ and under criticism, and can’t save them.

For years children’s advocates have pointed out the uselessness of the current system. It is scandalous that charities have for so long given speeches to an empty chamber. Children should be our priority. The research evidence is clear about the damage done when children witness let alone suffer domestic violence, are homeless, miss out on proper nutrition and stimulation in early life, and lack proper nurturing and boundaries. It passes through generations. The Commonwealth will act if the states try to go it alone in business regulation, but seems quite satisfied to leave alone the muddle of laws, funding gaps and fiefdoms that leave children to be hit, hurt, rejected, used or left hungry and alone.

It is not enough to pay for more investigators. Swamped with ‘unreliable’ reports, they leave too many cases unexamined, but many are not ‘reported’ at all because of a well-founded fear of harmful and inadequate, stigmatising intervention.

We need to fight for children’s rights now, not damages for the adults they may become.

I don’t want to see a national mandatory reporting scheme. Mandatory reporting was introduced four decades ago because we thought that if doctors had to report children’s injuries the problem would be exposed and effective interventions would follow. But as Dr. Maria Harries and Prof. Mike Clare pointed out in their comprehensive 2002 review for WA government, Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse: Evidence and Options, there is no evidence that (costly) mandatory reporting has done anything to improve support and services for children. There is overwhelming evidence that, worldwide, mandatory reporting systems are in chaos.

We must build on what we know. Good parents subordinate their personal preferences and priorities to the ‘here and now’ needs of their children. A good society must do the same. What a difference it would make if the disciplines and professions, government and community groups, and all levels of government worked together on eradicating the conditions in which child abuse thrives.

It is a modest proposal. We are devouring our children because of our national preoccupation with wealth and goods. I propose putting our billions into a national, well-researched, universally-available, non-stigmatising children’s program, an investment in all children’s right to a decent quality of life, funded and delivered by the nation so that wonderful services are equally accessible to a child in Moe, Mulan or Vaucluse, as a matter of right.

If Mr Howard could raise billions and achieve national gun laws to prevent another Port Arthur massacre, what couldn’t we save? Our souls, maybe?

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